IMHO: Upper Valley sports offered a few diamonds in the dust that was 2020

  • Upper Valley's Kobe Benoit, center, is mobbed by his teammates after his game-winning walk-off hit in the seventh inning defeated Nashua 9-8 to win their best-of-three semifinal series in the New Hampshire COVID Baseball League tournament in Lebanon, N.H., on Aug. 13, 2020. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Mascoma's Brianna Withington reacts after Bishop Brady scores with no time left on the clock to tie the game 1-1 on Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020 in West Cannan, N.H. At the end of regulation, it was announced the winner of the semifinal game would be declared state champions because Berlin forfeited after their semifinal win. Bishop Brady won in overtime, 2-1. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jackson Ransom, of Thetford Academy, evens the score at 11 on a breakaway against Enosburg in the Division III championship at the Barre Auditorium in Barre, Vt., Saturday, March 7, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jim Bayles, of Newtown, Conn., left, talks with his former Dartmouth College swimming coach Ron Keenhold, of Hanover, foreground right, after completing a 15 mile swim on the Connecticut River from Orford to Hanover, N.H., in seven hours and 46 minutes Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020. Bayles did the swim in an effort to gain support for the reinstatement of the Dartmouth College swimming and diving team, which was cut from varsity sports over the summer. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Hanover Country Club grounds workers removed sprinkler heads on half of the course in Hanover, N.H., Thursday, July 23, 2020. A group of 17 alumni and supporters is proposing to take over the northernmost section of the course with an initial pledged investment of $7.5 million. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Sports Editor
Published: 12/31/2020 8:15:55 PM
Modified: 12/31/2020 8:15:44 PM

As sports fans, we will gauge 2020 by the volume of things lost.

March 11 will live most in infamy. As Lebanon and Hanover got ready for an NHIAA Division II high school girls basketball semifinal for the ages, the Ivy League canceled its remaining of its winter season in the face of a virus that would frame the rest of our year.

COVID-19, first and foremost, destroyed lives and livelihoods. It played a definitive role in ousting arguably the worst president in American history. But beyond that, it annihilated what we — those of us in the media playground, at least — considered our right: the games. Within 24 hours of the Ivies’ call, the NHIAA and VPA either canceled their winter tournaments or put them on temporary hold before abandoning them soon after.

Nearly nine months later, we’re nowhere close to where we should be. We never determined some of last winter’s champions. We lost an entire spring and nearly an entire summer of stories. Autumn sputtered along, coaches and athletes happy to be able to do something, wary that someone else’s cough might be the signal of bad news to come.

It’s in my nature to seek silver linings. It wasn’t an easy task trying to do so for the Valley News’ annual alphabetical look back at the year expired.

So much was taken away — and so little of it has yet to return, if indeed it ever will.

A: Beyond the date the Ivies turned out the lights, the afternoon of July 9 also served as a calendar lowlight. That’s when Dartmouth College announced it was axing five sports programs (men’s lightweight crew; men’s and women’s golf; men’s and women’s swimming and diving) and permanently closing Hanover Country Club in a budget-cutting move. The reductions cost 15 staff members their jobs, about 110 athletes their teams and the department about $2 million — or 1.33% of an anticipated $150 million college-wide deficit.

B: There were very few boys of summer because of the pandemic. The NECBL called its 2020 season on May 1, meaning no Upper Valley Nighthawks. American Legion baseball bit the dust, although independent leagues in both states eventually popped up. The White River Junction Junior Nighthawks got to the semifinals in Vermont, while the Lebanon-based Upper Valley Anglers came within a game of a New Hampshire COVID Baseball League championship, stopped by a potential coronavirus exposure by its foe.

C: Just to reach that point, the Anglers had to pull off one of the three great UV comebacks of 2020, erasing an 8-0 deficit in the final two innings of a 9-8 semifinal series clincher over Nashua. A day later, as if taking a hint, Lebanon golfer Pat Pelletier made up an eight-stroke gap to win the New Hampshire Stroke Play Championship at Montcalm Golf Club, his third straight victory in the event. (Comeback No. 3 to come.)

D:Dartmouth catcher Ben Rice made the most of his truncated summer of baseball, winning the Futures Collegiate Baseball League’s MVP award and leading the FCBL in home runs (11), slugging percentage (.683) and on base-plus-slugging (1.150) over a 38-game slate.

E: Vera Rivard took the long, slow and wet way from England to France on Sept. 1, reaching the lifelong goal of swimming across the English Channel. The Springfield, N.H., resident and Upper Valley Aquatic Club competitor finished the crossing in 14 hours, 10 minutes; the effect of tides and marine traffic turned a 21-mile straight-line route into a meandering 33-mile effort.

F: Once finally started, the fall campaign produced three state championships. Windsor High field hockey, playing masked all autumn, completed a 9-0-0 campaign with a 2-1 defeat of Stowe for its second straight VPA D-III crown. The Newport High football teamed returned to its apex by destroying Somersworth, 42-0, in the NHIAA D-IV final. After a narrow miss at the state D-II meet, Hanover girls cross country claimed the NHIAA Meet of Champions for the first time in more than a decade. (Windsor football added an area crown in the seven-on-seven season that took the place of tackle football in Vermont.)

G: Once the populace was freed from stay-at-home orders, no places benefited more than the Upper Valley’s golf courses, which — save for Dartmouth’s shortsightedness with Hanover Country Club — all reported surges in memberships and rounds played. The highlights followed: Dartmouth graduate James Pleat rolled to his first New Hampshire Amateur championship at his home Nashua Country Club; Pelletier rallied at the Stroke Play (which had originally been scheduled for Hanover CC); Hanover High’s Natalie Morhun took runner-up honors at the N.H. Girls Junior; and Newport Golf Club — still under bank ownership from a 2019 auction — made it to its 100th birthday.

H:Hanover and Hartford both produced winter championships before the pandemic took hold. The Marauders won their third straight D-II girls swimming and diving title, paced by a state record in the 200 freestyle relay (1:39.95) from Grace Wenger, Margaret Wenger, Emma Dunbar and Jocelyn Hazen to go with Amelia Wallis’ fourth straight diving cown. The Hurricanes won their first state track victory in school history by taking D-II indoor honors in February.

I:Interruptions, interruptions — Oxbow, Windsor and Thetford made up 75% of the VPA D-III girls basketball semifinals and Hanover and Lebanon had dates booked in the NHIAA D-II boys hoop quarterfinals when pandemic lockdowns hit. None played again.

J: East Thetford’s Jason Gray had a year to remember, twice dodging the pandemic to record championships. The first came with Thetford boys basketball, with Gray’s Panthers winning the VPA D-III crown, 54-44, over Enosburg at the Barre Auditorium on March 7, just days before the world shut down. Meanwhile, COVID-19 led Gray to stay close to home for his summer auto racing habit; he was a Sportsman Modified champion at Bear Ridge Speedway by the end of a September for the first time.

K: Originally not in the field for the VPA state individual bowling tournament, Windsor High’s Patrick Kelley earned an invitation when 10 others among the top 32 competitors in Vermont couldn’t make the Rutland Bowlerama finals on Feb 22. Without a 200 game to his name, Kelley proceeded to roll six of them over seven duels to become the Yellowjackets’ second individual kingpin in four years of state sanctioning.

L: The Upper Valley sports community suffered losses of a personal as well as competitive nature. Hartford High boys lacrosse coach Bill Elberty died on May 18. Woodstock High said goodbye to former ski coach (and magazine columnist) Bill McCollom. Veteran Dartmouth athletics administrator Brian Austin lost a two-year battle with cancer in January, and former athletic director Seaver Peters — who oversaw the arrival of women’s sports at Dartmouth and the construction of Thompson Arena and Campion Rink, and also co-founded the Hanover Hockey Association — died in late February.

M: Although the pandemic nixed a final test, Quechee’s Mid Vermont Christian School finally got to call itself a state champion. The fourth-ranked Eagles’ 61-49 VPA D-IV girls basketball semifinal upset of No. 1 West Rutland on March 9 included a 21-for-23 effort at the line from junior Hayley Goodwin on a team that included four displaced Sharon Academy athletes. The MVCS/TSA merger should continue this winter … if.

N: West Fairlee’s Tara Geraghty-Moats has been gradually pushing women’s Nordic combined toward greater recognition in the eyes of the skiing world. Her competitive efforts were rewarded in a big way on Dec. 18 when she won the first-ever women’s FIS World Cup event in Austria, using her cross country skiing chops to make up a 39-second gap following the meet’s jumping portion. Geraghty-Moats also won her second straight FIS Continental Cup title in March just as the pandemic was taking hold in Europe.

O: Former Dartmouth football standout Niko Lalos was nothing if not opportunistic. He signed a free-agent contract in April with the New York Giants, largely helped by an MVP performance on Jan. 26 in the first Hula Bowl in 12 years. A practice squad player most of the NFL season, Lalos got the call to join Big Blue for a Nov. 29 win over Cincinnati in which he contributed an interception. Lalos followed with a fumbler recovery in an upset of Seattle a week later, whereupon the Giants signed him to their active roster for the rest of the season.

P: While we’re on the topic of promotions, Ryan Jeffers became the first Upper Valley Nighthawks alumnus to make the major leagues when the Minnesota Twins brought him up on Aug. 20. Jeffers, a catcher with the Hawks in 2017, Jeffers went 2-for-3 with a run and an RBI in a 7-1 win over Milwaukee. He ultimately batted .273 in 26 regular-season games.

Q: The sound of quiet permeated the Dartmouth campus with the pandemic’s arrival. While the college went to remote learning for spring and summer term before half of the student body returned in September, the school’s athletic facilities went silent with no spring, fall or winter sports contests. They could very well stay that way for a second straight spring, something that isn’t likely to be decided until February.

R: The cancellation of college sports gave two longtime Dartmouth coaches cover for retirement. Longtime men’s hockey coach Bob Gaudet signaled an end to his 23-year tenure at his alma mater in April after setting program records for wins (331) and games (752). (Washington Capitals assistant coach Reid Cashman, a former All-American defenseman at Quinnipiac, replaced him in June.) Cross country and track coach Barry Harwick followed suit in July, capping 28 years that included multiple league titles, numerous NCAA championship visits and a plethora of Olympic athletes.

S: Strange but true — Mascoma High field hockey started an NHIAA D-III semifinal and ended a championship game in the same day. The Royals’ Oct. 29 semi with Bishop Brady was one touch from a 1-0 semifinal win a goal when the Green Giants’ Ashley Toupin forced overtime. The teams were then informed of finalist Berlin’s positive COVID-19 test, meaning the Brady-Mascoma winner would be a state champ. The visitors scored six minutes into OT for a bizarre 2-1 victory.

T: The NCAA transfer portal became a thing with Dartmouth men’s basketball, especially after this winter’s season went buh-bye. Senior Brendan Barry entered the portal early in the year as he recovered from hip surgery, committed to return to the Big Green, then ended up transferring to Temple after the Ivies bailed. Rising senior Chris Knight followed suit in December, deciding to wrap up his playing career at Loyola Chicago. Rising senior Aaryn Rai also remains in the portal.

U: Lebanon High football went undefeated against everything it could see. The Raiders ran the table in six games, amassing a 195-26 points differential, holding foes without an offensive touchdown for 19 quarters and sweeping two games from archrival Hanover. A positive COVID-19 test at its quarterfinal opponent, Bow, resulted in a semifinal forfeit, although the Raiders later saw quarterback/defensive back Jackson Stone and coach Chris Childs sweep the top postseason honors for their region.

V: OK, time for comeback No. 3. On the day the world started shutting down, Lebanon High girls basketball pulled off a victory that would define its season. Trailing by 11 points entering the fourth quarter, the Raiders rallied for a 60-56 NHIAA D-II semifinal win over top-seeded Hanover at Pinkerton Academy, a game moved from Dartmouth’s Leede Arena by the pandemic. Lebanon would be named state co-champions with Spaulding when the NHIAA canceled the final a few days later.

W: Even if COVID-19 keeps him from wrestling this winter, Newport’s Josh Sharron (138 pounds) had an outstanding season last winter. He and teammates Marius Edwards (160) and Anson Ritondo (106) claimed weight-class victories at the NHIAA Division III state tournament in February. Sharron — who became the sixth athlete in Newport wrestling history to amass 100 victories in January — followed that up with a third-place finish at the NHIAA Meet of Champions and another third a week later at New Englands.

X: In this case, it’s for the NHIAA XC skiing title the Hanover boys took last winter, combined with their second ski jumping title in a row to cement state Nordic skiing supremacy.

Y: The pandemic may ultimately be responsible for a surge in young coaches in the area. With no college seasons requiring their attendance, several recent Upper Valley high school athletes (Hanover’s Charlie Adams, Mascoma’s Tucker Stenger, Hartford’s Ceci Spaulding) became either volunteer or paid assistants with their former teams. It would not have happened without a virus’ unwelcome intrusion. Still …

Z: Zip, zero, zilch — that’s how much I’ll miss 2020.

Here’s to a much better, and healthier, year in 2021. Mask up.

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.




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